Friday, December 18, 2009

Landscape & Myth

Musing, it comes to me that the stories we know - the stories we live by - otherwise known as myth - are radically different based on where we live. The urban city is utterly different than any small town or farm, and the differences only begin there.

Last Friday morning, I was witness to an incredibly large sandhill crane southward migration, directly over the heart of the city of Chicago. In fact, they flew directly over where I live. Large flocks, by the hundreds, flew over for at least an hour. I understand now that this was only the tail end; even larger numbers flew over the same route last Thursday.

It came to me that this was a story I did not know, one that was not known deep inside me. If we don't experience something like this, we don't actually feel it. Bird migration was something that happened, elsewhere, high up in the sky; amazing in many ways, but a mental construct for me, not a living, honking sight. These large flocks of noisy cranes really have to be seen to understand the power in the action.

The city engages us with a completely different type of story, one of construct, man-made materials, neighborhoods, commerce. We can't get away from these in other places, but levels and space and materials are all different. City stories are not really nature stories. "Getting away" to nature for a while is not the same as day-to-day living in a place where, say, the sandhill cranes usually migrate over.

(An aside - I just read a research study that it is hugely more likely for those involved in serious hiking and backpacking to support conservation efforts than for those involved in nature tours - seems length of experience must be the tipping factor). The power of the natural world has to be lived in to be fully felt, just as the power of the urban must be lived in to be understood. I know of people who have been afraid to drive into Chicago, even living only an hour away in a suburb.

Where we are is a powerful indicator of the stories, the myths, we feel or know. These stories are neither wrong nor right, on a personal level. As a child, the fabric of the myths surrounding you creates your world. They make up what you know and how you know it.

But we do grow up, and have the opportunity to learn new stories, to experience ways we are not familiar with. Experiencing the sandhill cranes flying over my house can change me by allowing me to understand a powerful force that I thought I knew, but just didn't know deep enough.

Knowing possibilities allows us to question other stories being lived. I think of wolf hunts in Alaska from helicopters, one of many examples, and I question how that could possibly be a useful story to live in. But unless I am there, seeing and feeling the particulars, I cannot know, for sure, whether it is a story that needs to be told. It is a different story than those I am familiar with. I guess that I might end that story a different way. But can I make that call?

In the world today, and certainly in the United States, there really are no myths that everyone lives by. If different landscapes provide different myths, and so many other factors affect our stories as well, how could one story effect every person the same way? A colleague of mine suggests televison as one possible common denominator, and it works, but I don't think it works one hundred percent. Perhaps the medium works in similar ways for varied people, but the exact story told has its own way of working on us.

The same colleague also suggests The Wasteland as a common denominator, which also works to some degree. The degradation of land and responsibility and ability to care are all factors of The Wasteland, and it is not so hard to find evidence of this myth in reality. But again, it is not one hundred percent - there are those still hopeful, still happy, still building and able to keep themselves from being bogged down in the garbage. So I find it difficult to think of a widespread myths for all of us. Religions try, but "religions try" proves that is not the answer.

Perhaps this is why Joseph Campbell called out for each of us to find the personal myths we live by. This caused an explosion of interest in individuals seeking to recognize the mythic stories with true resonance for them.This happened because it is hard to find any connective story lines with others living their storioes.

Although ultimately it is our own stories that matter, it is obvious we need to understand that everyone's story is part of the same mythology. I want to listen and understand your story, as long as you don't tell me your story is the only one there is.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Peter and the Wolf

The 2008 Oscar for Best animated short went to Suzie Templeton for "Peter and the Wolf". Somehow this 32 minute gem slipped under my radar, but I found it by chance and am very glad I did.

It uses stop motion animation to tell a simple story of a lonely boy whose only friends are animals. These include a heartbreakingly ill-fated duck, an amazingly expressive crow and, eventually, the titled wolf. An Oscar well-deserved. It's on Netflix. Queue it up.

What I want to focus on is animation. Once again, the power of the imaginal is more expressive than reality. Jean Paul Sartre writes of the imagination, the story being told as more powerful than the actual events that occurred. Hearing a story, everyone can live the events in their own head, the power of revelations and experiences multiplying and exploding as if the events were taking place all over again. When a story is told, power is unleashed. That's a paraphrase of Sartre - he might be appalled! But this is how animation, and stop-motion animation in particular, works - we instantly know we are in a story and don't need to navigate the trappings of reality. We go with it, allowing it more freedom because of its form, and perhaps that allows us to feel on a different level. The events and the power behind them become more real. There is an intensity of feeling - perhaps the animated characters and places become archetypal, stand-ins for all the real characters and animals that might be in a story like that. When we fill that archetype with substance, that power is unleashed.

Often the events depicted through animation are somewhat impossible. Through the medium, though - and always through story telling - we feel them as if they were real. Disney's "A Christmas Carol" (see last post) did this with 3-D animation. But I must admit I rushed that post after lingering on it too long. I wanted to get to "Peter and the Wolf".

Stop-motion has always fascinated me, with Ray Harryhausen's multiple mergings of monsters and men and Willis O'Brien's King Kong still being the standard bearers for the form. I am confident we can add Tim Burton's work to the honor roll, "Nightmare Before Christmas" being a classic. But "Peter and the Wolf" really belongs in the same conversation.
The power of the film itself is evident enough, but also watch the documentary "Making of" feature. We understand why this film has such power when we see the sets for this film. They are huge, with amazing detail. There is a scene showing Peter in the city in which the buildings look so real, I really wondered how the effect was done. Well, the crew built rather large buildings. An archetypal city, it has more power than if the filmmakers had used "real" buildings.

On a personal note, seeing those sets pulled me back to thoughts from film school. If you have ever tried to make a real film, you realize that it is difficult. You need a group of people working in harmony. Right there is a problem often too big to overcome. You need a huge amount of money, in proportion, for even the smallest and most modest film. Then there is equipment - technology is bringing prices down and quality up, but the costs are still very large. What really surprised me though is the fact that there is also an extreme aversion by filmmakers to taking bold risks. You would think young filmmakers would try anything, but the rigors of school almost always force them to go real and to go straightforward. After forty years or so in business, my film school was just beginning a Production Design department.
While in school, I had tried to get a small film made based on a Japanese myth. It would have required one set that was elaborately created to show the Dry Bed of the River of Souls. It was to be live action, but the design was crucial. If anyone showed any interest in tackling that project, they suggested animation instead. So, when I see a project as big and bold and ultimately successful as this version of "Peter and the Wolf", I can only exult with joy. Really.
My film would have shot in one or two days. "Peter and the Wolf" took five years to make.

Christmas Ghosts

I have always been intrigued by the English tradition of ghost stories on Christmas. I understand that the day is not complete without the family settling in for a few tales of the lingering dead. There are some good guesses I could make about why this would be so, and why this is one tradition we don't normally associate with Christmas here in the U.S.A. I could probably google up the history of this, but I've always enjoyed just knowing this and left it that.

The famous ghost story of the season is one we actually do treasure here, Dickens' "A Christmas Carol". He wrote it to be a traditional Christmas ghost story. While we know the ghostly part of the story, the emphasis is usually on the conversion of Scrooge's heart from coal to love.

Disney's new 3-D version brings the ghosts back, and they are welcome. I have touted the latest 3-D process here before, and must do it again. The depth in the screen makes these movies like nothing else. The word "amazing" really fits.

Monday, November 2, 2009

"the hideous dropping off of the veil"

"I looked upon the scene before me - upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain - upon the bleak walls - upon the vacant eye-like windows - upon a few rank sedges - and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees - with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium - the bitter lapse into everyday life - the hideous dropping off of the veil." - E. A. Poe, The Fall of the House of Usher

When I started this blog, Beyond the Veil definitely referred to the veil being lifted from this side of reality, our concrete world of everyday life, in order to discover the rest of what matters. In re-reading the Poe story quoted above this weekend, it struck me how he described the lifting of the veil from the other side. "Utter depression" occurs when we are on the other side, revelling in presumed awe and wonder, and the veil drops to reveal that reality. Poe describes our everyday life here as bleak, vacant, rank and decayed. And of course, he crossed over the veil through the use of opium.

But this was a reminder of how it works both ways. There is a world of wonder alongside the common world. Mythical living, I think, works only when we can see both sides of that veil. If we are stuck in the wonder, it is easy to lose sight of what is around us. Yet - if we see no wonder in what surrounds us, surely we are just as stuck.

The veil is thin if we allow it to be.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Mythical Living Through - Shudder & Gasp! - Pop Culture

In the hallowed psychological halls of academia at the Institute where I eke out graduate level study of Mythology, and all that might mean, whispers circle at the edges. Furtive glances precede, sussing out those who might be listening, making sure only friendly voices are near when a certain topic is mentioned. This is not Depth Psychology, nor C. G. Jung. It is not ritual of which I speak, nor of the Eastern road to enlightenment. Jesus? No. Not religion at all. Barely mythological, if certain are listened to. Of what do I speak, true believer?

Pop culture. There - the heavens have rattled, the mind has felt tremors from deep within - but the skies and our bodies still stand. In the ongoing battle of high brow vs. low brow, art vs. - well what do They say is the opposite of art? - crap? Popular culture, the offering of these United States to the World.

Our entertainment is saturated with myth and psychological depth, but often ignored with the academic snort, a wave of the hand, a derisive comment, but mostly, with an ignorance claiming worthlessness to the whole part and parcel of the stories we live in. By focusing on religion, fine art and analysis, the actual mythical living this abundantly rich and mythical pop culture bathes us in - and sometimes cleanses us with - can be utterly ignored by the academy I am part of unless it can be linked to, as above, religion, fine art and analytical models that enable.... something. I don't quite know.

What I do believe though, is: read or embodied (embodied here meaning lived, because a story told that one finds enabling is often useful to then enact, somehow proving useful to one's lived life) - myth surrounds us. James Hillman - for all his output on patient analysis by relating our pathologies to Greek myths in order to see through and understand them, allowing ourselves to move beyond those pathologies - has a major idea that seems to be mostly ignored for what it implies, for what it imagines. He stresses that mythically living is the aim.

We need to see the stories that surround us at all times, the possibilities that those stories offer us. If we are in need, the stories that have gone before us can offer insights and ways to help us. But what of those who are relatively free of pathology? Myth still surrounds us. The idea of mythically living still offers us a rich, and deep, embodied way of life, a way to see the world and our world in more satisfying and meaningful ways.

To remain stuck in pathology turns the screws on ourselves, ferreting out deep insidious problems where there may only be a lack of ability to see the wonder and the awe. Why settle for problems when you can be awed? This is not to say there are not deep and disturbing problems that some of us have real troubles with. But without that, why not aim for awe?

And religion in our society has proven mostly incapable of providing awe. It seems harder and harder to maintain a story - a mythical life - that is capable of explaining everything in one system. The more stories we have, the more stories that provide that wonder and awe as example, the easier it is to mythically live. Thus, the American idea of the melting pot can be seen as that cauldron of story that Tolkien wrote about. And then, Enter - pop culture.

Our master mythologists today are our storytellers. The ideas run thick and deep in film, literature, comics, music and every other style and genre of art. Some is crap. Some provides wonder and awe; wonder and awe that provide stories to enable us to be in that rarefied space known as mythical living. Simple as that. Can pop culture do that for us? Surely no, the academy shouts loudly.

But of course, it can. This post was originally going to be a fun musing on paranormal investigators, an archetype that I was drawn to even as a child. Scooby Doo and his people investigated mysteries. One favorite show for me as a child was "Kolchak the Night Stalker", a Chicago newspaper reporter who found a new monster every week to investigate. A bit unbelievable that he was able to do that led to an early demise for that show. And recently - Hellboy, Mike Mignola's masterful empire of comics, animation and film about what seems to me to be the ultimate in paranormal investigation. All pop culture. All fun. But utterly mythical - providing stories that allow us to view the world through mythical eyes and re-see what is actually there.

I'll give only one example. In "Hellboy II - The Golden Army", after two viewings, I was still somewhat unsure of exactly why Hellboy and friends quit the B.P.R.D. at the end of the movie. Sure, it seemed wrong that the elf prince had to die. He was on the side against humans, but his cause seemed somehow just. And the princesses death certainly underscored how unfair it was. But this is what they do - fight the occult evils of the world. Why quit over this one?

And it now occured to me how powerful an earlier scene had been - a scene invoking landscape and a way to see mythical living in our world. It did not evoke pathology, but conveyed an actual way to see life anew. In that scene, Hellboy deafeats and kills a nature elemental, a giant flowerlike plant spirit that raged over the concrete streets and in its demise left a green paradise, plants and flowers, another world of beauty that could only be seen through after the nature spirit died.
This dreamlike scene, in which the human looking Liz meanders through a spray of falling seed and watches greenery sprout and spread instantaneously, is pop culture at its best. It offers images and narratives not only for the filmed story, but also for us and our lives. Here is pop culture myth powerful enough to hold its own with classical myths, showing us a possibility, one possible way, to live our lives. Hellboy quits because he sees through his life to the larger universal. Mythical living.

"Hey, that red devil is from a comic book!" They rant and rave.
I say - Throw back the curtains and open the doors. Emerge into the world and breathe. Deeply.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The soul is the same in all living creatures, although the body of each is different. ~ Hippocrates

Disturbingly, I heard a bird's last death cry yesterday - a sparrow, presumably clipped, while flying, by a passing car . I heard it scream, while circling in the air once - before quickly expiring in the street.

Three hours later, almost in the same spot as when I witnessed the bird, I spotted a furry little thing laying alongside my building. Because of all the autumn yellow leaves scattered around it, I couldn't tell if it was some sort of women's accessory, or a mouse. I carefully touched it with the tip of my shoe - and a little pink mouth opened. It's fur was black, spotted with silvery white hairs - it was a bat. I don't know bats from beans, but I thought it was probably dying.

I left it alone, further disturbed on my corner of little deaths.

Hope lives on though - the bat had managed to crawl up the wall a few hours later. Was it just hibernating? Cold?

It was gone this morning.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Musing on Landscape

The striking aspect of the amazing "Where the Wild Things Are" film, for me, is the use of landscape, the seemingly inevitable focus on nature as the place we go to work things out, to level ourselves. So often art shows the ways in which that landscape mirrors our interior landscape.

There is no denying the power of the cinematograpy of this film, because there is no denying the power of the landscape that enfolds it at every turn.

In myth, we come up against history, religion, psychology. Greek myth is used as the base tool for depth psychology, relating our Western lives to urbane gods that influenced a rationalizing society. But other myths rise from elesewhere, including the lands they are part of. There are the Celtic myths, with their forests without which they would be impossible to imagine. There are Norse myths, from frozen lands where harsh actions, with and against the landscape, were necessary for survival. Then there is The Kalevala, the Finnish song cycle portraying the Finnish landscape of lake and snow, sled and ice, as it influences every nuanced turn of every tale.

In our concrete landscape, we are able to separate ourselves from the world. All peoples at all times dared to take what they needed from the landscape, striving to make life easier and more fulfilling. However, there used to be less people, less sweeping change, less destructive human activity. The planet is overrun with people now, and too many of us are too far away from any natural lands. Are we disciplined enough to pull back, to need less and to get closer to the rest of the planet? Can we halt the concrete and find the land we need to maintain our real humanity?

Max uses the land and the Wild Things to not only release wild frustrations, but also to rejuvenate, to slow his mind down to be able to think thoughts, rather than simply process and release reactions. No greater tools exist for us to consider and reconsider landscape than myth and fantasy.

I saw a production of Peter S. Beagle's "The Last Unicorn" this weekend. It was remarkable, and part of the credit goes to the amazing production design, the landscape of the play. In a small space, a simple wooden fence became the world of the entire drama, evoking every background and space needed. If you have read this book, you might agree that a live production would be difficult. But this show transported us to a world in which magic and possibility existed. Interesting that culture at its very best in our concrete cities often means escape to a created landscape in the darkness of a theater. Film, drama, music; whatever artistic venture we attend, we go to experience the creation of a new world, or a look back at an older world. It is often simpler, yet more nuanced than our own. we seek a world made up out of fantasy, a landscape we seek to inhabit when the landscape around us is not enough. Or is perhaps too much.

Simplicity is a key idea in our dramas and fictions. Even in film, that most real of arts, we really know everything is created, everything is simpler than in reality.

It seems time to reconsider how to make reality itself simpler.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Mask of the Superhero: Ritual Portrayal in the Comics

In America, outside of the official churches of major religions, there is little obvious ritual. We have few experiences that can be compared to physically enacted, inward directed and mentally changing phenomenon that many cultures around the globe still engage in. Even rituals of religion have lost much relevance, because, as Joseph Campbell writes, “Where the synagogues and churches go wrong is by telling what their symbols ‘mean’. The value of an effective rite is that it leaves everyone to his own thoughts, which dogma and definitions only confuse” (Myths 97). The value of American religious ritual has been degraded because the metaphors of their meaning have been depleted, replaced with absolute values few actually understand. If a ritual evokes nothing, it is difficult to label it a ritual. However, there is another place to look for rituals in America. Analyzing modern myth in our culture, Harold Schechter quotes Mircea Eliade, “’What has become of myths in the modern world?’-and his answer is in part that they are to be found in our amusements, that they ‘survive among our contemporaries in more or less degraded forms’” (3). Myth survives, and thrives, in many forms in popular culture. Schechter analyzes the comic book, maintaining that “Far from being ‘mindless escapism’ or ‘worthless junk,’ popular art is a projection of the collective unconscious-an expression of the deepest, myth-producing level of the human psyche” (9). When readers interact personally with a text as closely as reading a comic, utilizing the built-in structure of gaps between panels to interject their own thoughts into the narrative, it becomes apparent such works function in a manner similar to classic myths. However, can ritual be present there as well? At the very least, ritual may be portrayed in these popular myths, just as ritual has been portrayed in the classic mythological narratives of the world. In these portrayals, what can we learn of how ritual is seen in our society? By analyzing the origin narrative of a famous superhero, the Batman, and focusing on the masking ritual he found so necessary, it will become apparent popular culture portrays both historically ethnocentric, as well as more relevant and open-minded, beliefs about ritual masking events.

Before there was Cultural Relativism, the Western anthropologist was an insulated breed, upholding European-based society as civilization, while at the same time, denigrating the fascinating “primitives” around the world, and their beliefs, as a lesser level of society. Through the twentieth century, this slowly began to change, but theory based on years of academic writing can be painfully slow to such change. Ritual masking theory, as Henry Pernet makes extremely clear, was based on Western assumptions and held to some very narrow views. He repudiates the purely Western interpretation of ritual masking as always being about giving up, escaping or changing one’s own personality to enter a supernatural state (125) as the only possible interpretations of this cultural phenomenon. Pernet demonstrates it is incorrect to generalize that the wearer of the mask always “becomes the spirit represented by the mask” (162) because “the facts show that the wearer generally remains aware and responsible; he must often submit himself to a long apprenticeship, demonstrate great concentration” (162). He also repudiates the view that “masks are malevolent” (105), because the wearers are usually dedicated and willing participants in the masking rituals (105-106). In the wide range of cultural masking phenomenon, these older, Western ideas have now been opened to a much wider range of analysis. Pernet writes, “As for the relation between the wearer, his mask, the power, the event or the spirit represented, it is found…on a continuum ranging from the simple dramatization of a character or a mythic narrative to a possible ‘actual transformation’ of the wearer, including a number of cases where the ‘supernatural’ power or element is present, completely or in part, in the mask, its accessories or the costume” (134). Pernet deftly proves by examples that every masking ritual has its own details and they do not all conform to the same parameters. The story of the Batman is relevant because it contains so many of the meanings behind ritual masking that Pernet delineates in his survey of the phenomenon. In addition, many of the classic theories of ritual can be applied to aspects of this narrative. Because of the huge volume of material containing this character, most of the following observations will be applied simply to a short, two-page origin story from November 1939 (Kane and Finger).

Before the origin narrative is examined, the most obvious and pervasive aspect of masking in the Batman story is the very one that Pernet proves to be flawed, the early Western view of other cultures’ ritual masks. The main premise of the Batman, and a major factor in the character’s popularity through a seventy year history, is that by putting on the mask, Bruce Wayne becomes Batman, a different entity. The man, Wayne, gives up his persona of a wealthy playboy to become the hero, Batman, a night-prowling crime fighter. He escapes his limits as a man to become a superhero. In addition, he completely changes his personality, going from a blasé millionaire to a hard-nosed detective, fighting to end crime. The mask reshaping the man into a supernatural-like entity echoes the early anthropologist’s views on masking. If the man did not become the Batman so completely, it is questionable whether the character would have lasted for seventy years. In all the multiple comics series starring the Batman, only one, a single, stand-alone issue, names Bruce Wayne in the title (Overstreet, 324). The major reason for sitting down with a Batman comic is to be engrossed by the narrative of the superhero, not his normal, true identity. Very clearly, because of the mask, Bruce Wayne becomes someone completely different. The non-stop and seemingly endless versions of the basic Batman crime fighting narratives prove the power of our culture’s need to believe in the myth of such heroes.

However, there is deeper resonance between Batman, masking and ritual theory to be discovered when we closely examine the foundation of the character, his creation myth, or origin, as it usually called in the comics. In a two page narrative (Kane and Finger), the following tale is told: young Bruce Wayne, his father and his mother are walking home from a movie. A robber pulls a gun on them and demands his mother’s necklace (Page 1, Panel 1). The father defends her and moves toward the crook. The robber shoots him dead (P.1, P.2). The mother yells for police, causing the robber to shoot her dead as well (P.1, P.3). Young Bruce has witnessed the entire, brutal slaying and stares, crying, at his dead parents lying on the sidewalk (P.2, P’s. 1-2). Next seen, the boy is kneeling and praying at his bedside, and he swears, “by the spirits of my parents to avenge their deaths by spending the rest of my life warring on all criminals” (P.2, P.3). We are then told he studies to become “a master scientist” (P.2, P.4) and he “trains his body to physical perfection until he is able to perform amazing athletic feats” (P.2, P.5). In the sequence that completes the origin narrative, Wayne tells us “I must have a disguise” (P.2, P6) and “Criminals are a superstitious cowardly lot. So my disguise must be able to strike terror into their hearts. I must be a creature of the night. Black, terrible..a.a..” (P.2, P.7). A bat flies into his room. He says, “A bat! That’s it! It’s an omen. I shall become a Bat!” (P.2, P.8) The Batman is then depicted in full mask and costume with cape, under the caption, “And thus is born this weird figure of the dark..This avenger of evil. ‘The Batman’” (P.2, P.9). This short sequence proves to be very rich in depicting various aspects of ritual masking and ritual theory. This theoretical grounding may partially account for the resonance readers feel with the character and his continued popularity in our culture.

Important attributes of ritual in reality are that they should be physically enacted by a body, inwardly directed to embody “thought or belief”, and consist of mentally changing action “designed to reflect an interpretation of existence and to effect an experience of that interpretation” (Grillo). Are these fundamental qualities depicted in the origin narrative of the Batman as described above? First and most direct, the mask of the Batman is physically and thoughtfully put on by Bruce Wayne to become the Batman. Unfortunately, this action is not specifically drawn. However, this is a good example of the comics structure, wherein putting on the mask is the missing action the reader interjects between Panels 8 and 9. In addition to the mask, Bruce Wayne has clothed himself in an entire costume, including the typical cape and tights of the superhero. Second in regard to physical enacting, the entire ritual of becoming Batman, and really any superhero, is a physical action. The genre itself is equivalent to physicality and action. The Batman as a character is renowned because he does not have superpowers, but simply has trained, physically, to gain the strength he will need for his self-imposed mission. This is shown in Page 2, Panel 5, where we see Bruce Wayne lifting weights. Physical fitness itself may be ritualized, and Batman is a prime example of physical embodiment. Though the Batman story is told in a narrative form, the melding of story with art that is comics often emphasizes performance over narrative, which is similar to the structure of rituals in reality.

The second attribute of ritual, to be inwardly directed to embody belief and thought, is certainly present in the masking ritual of the Batman. Every time Bruce Wayne puts on his Batman mask, he becomes the persona of Batman, which was specifically chosen “to strike terror into” the hearts of the criminals he is dedicating his life to bringing to justice. The Batman’s purpose is to put an end to such brutality as was witnessed by the young Bruce Wayne. The entire costume, including the mask, is chosen to embody the action of striking terror in to the hearts of criminals. As such, it is an outward manifestation of Bruce Wayne’s thoughts in regard to his new mission.

This overlaps with the third attribute of rituals, that of mentally changing the person undergoing the ritual. As shown in the third panel of Page 2, Bruce Wayne swears on the spirits of his murdered parents to war on all criminals. His view of the cosmos is implied to be one of justice versus injustice, a staple of the superhero genre, and easily imagined by the reader of this narrative after seeing the brutality of the crime depicted just before this panel. Wayne’s role in actually working against injustice can only become action by a transformation into a crime fighter. He cannot work for his mission as Bruce Wayne. When he undergoes the ritual masking and puts on his Batman costume, his mindset changes, and the persona of the Batman reflects the experience of having seen his parents gunned down, as well as the embodiment of his internal view of justice. Pernet suggests that, “masks often aim, on the one hand, at expressing a cosmos, a system of the world, and on the other hand, at recalling or dramatizing events, which are in general the founding events of the world, of humanity, of the clan, or of a particular institution” (161). In the case of Batman, his mask, and thus his new persona, expresses both his views on how the world should work, as well as recalling the founding, tragic event of the character.

Ritual theory, as Pernet’s work on ritual masking reflects, often contains many different ideas that can co-exist in one ritual. The general narrative as analyzed above already depicts many fundamental aspects of rituals underlying the Batman origin. The analysis can also be expanded by correlating the narrative with additional specific ritual theories. For Mircea Eliade, one of the goals of ritual is renewal, bringing a previous creation back into existence by performing a ritual activity. He explains, “the experience of sacred space and sacred time reveals a desire to reintegrate a primordial situation – that in which the gods and the mythical ancestors were present, that is, were engaged in creating the world, or in organizing it, or in revealing the foundations of civilization” (91-92). When Bruce Wayne puts on the Batman mask, he is reintegrating a “primordial situation” by remembering the heinous crime against his parents. In this sense, it is his real ancestors, not mythic, that are present in his psyche every time he undergoes the ritual masking. By putting on the mask, he also reveals “the foundations of civilization”, his own moral underpinning of justice which shapes his cosmos and was the reason he developed the Batman persona in the first place. The mask represents the event of the unjust murders, and the events which followed based on the lingering mental effect on the only survivor. It is not the bat image that is important in Wayne’s own psyche, but the memorial and re-enactment of his moral values that were so shaped by the brutal shooting of his parents in the street. In a sense, the act of putting on the mask is what Eliade termed a hierophany, an irruption of the sacred into space and time that allows the experience of the original moment to be remembered and enacted, though in this case, the sacred event is only reenacted in Bruce Wayne’s psyche.

Batman’s mask is not a Halloween mask. Becoming a superhero is not merely a way for Bruce Wayne to play. When he says “Dad’s estate left me wealthy” (Page 2, Panel 6), we can believe if his parents were still alive, Wayne would be enjoying that wealth, not choosing to risk his life by fighting crime. The murder of his parents began what is basically an initiation rite for Bruce Wayne. As delineated by Arnold Van Gennep, initiation is a rite of passage, a change from one state to another. As such, there are rites between each state. These rites “may be subdivided into rites of separation, transition rites, and rites of incorporation” (11). All three subdivisions are portrayed in the Batman origin narrative. Rites of separation take place when an initiate is separated from normal society, the rites marking them as someone whose status is going to change. The brutal murder of Wayne’s parents can be seen in this way, though this is admittedly an extremely literal rite of separation. The young boy is now in a liminal state, neither of society, as defined by the family unit that is now gone, nor is he yet the adult who chooses to become the Batman. In this liminal state, he undergoes transition rites, actions that change him and prepare his ability to re-enter society. These include his vow to make war “on all criminals”, his training as a “master scientist” and the training of “his body to physical perfection” (Page 2, Panels 3-5). These rites change him spiritually, mentally and physically. As a whole, they prepare Bruce Wayne for his eventual transition back into the world. The latter rites are those of incorporation, when the initiate with changed status re-enters the world. In this origin narrative, the incorporation rite takes place when Bruce Wayne decides to become the Batman. The moment he decides to become “a bat!”, as well as that missing scene when he actually pulls on the Batman mask, signify these rites of incorporation. The last panel in the narrative shows the Batman, in the world and ready to live up to his vow to fight crime. The caption above clearly marks this as a rite of incorporation in the form of a rebirth, as it reads, “And thus is born…this avenger of evil. ‘The Batman’” (P.2, P.9). The mask and costume have led to a rebirth, an incorporation of a new persona into the world. Bruce Wayne has finally reentered society in a new state.

If we consider Batman in general, not focusing simply on this origin narrative, it can be argued that he does not actually reenter society, but remains a liminal being. For a liminal initiate undergoing Van Gennep’s rites of passage, there are key points that define the experience they are going through. These include “spatial separation”, a conscious struggle regarding their changing state, the actual experience of the sacred and the promotion of their own understanding of the cosmos, in which the “ritual itself defines and determines what is sacred” (Grillo). If we consider Batman as a liminal being, we can perceive him as being perpetually stuck in the transition rite. He is a masked hero who prefers the darkness of night, which spatially separates him from other humans. In later versions of the Batman story, he is in constant struggle with himself and trying to figure out if Bruce Wayne is the real person or whether Batman has become more real. He experiences the sacred every time he relives his bedside vow by putting on his mask to become Batman. As this year marks the seventieth anniversary of his first appearance, he has been experiencing the sacred for quite a long time. Finally, if the ritual is what determines the sacred, the very fact Wayne continues to put on the mask, participating in the physical ritual that is the work of the Batman, implies the Batman has become more real than Bruce Wayne. For the reader of these comics, this is definitely the situation, as the myth of Batman continues to resonate deep within their imaginations and psyches. For Bruce Wayne, however, the day when he gives up the liminality of Batman by getting rid of the mask, will be the actual day when he undergoes the incorporation rite.

As we begin to question the duality of Batman and where his place in society actually lies, it becomes useful to consider Sigmund Freud’s views on ritual. To do this, it will be necessary to keep analyzing Batman through the wider lens of all his various narratives, not simply the original origin. In more recent Batman stories, starting with Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight, the Batman myth is examined in a grittier and more realistic style. The liminality of the superhero is directly addressed, and the question arises as to whether the Batman is a hero or a villain. The specific issue is whether someone who dresses up in a bat costume and acts as a vigilante can actually be considered part of society, much less a hero. In these narratives, Batman definitely remains a liminal being, stuck in the transition rite. Freud, equating the obsessive actions of neurotics with ritual actions, calls out their threefold resemblances consisting of “the qualms of conscience brought on by their neglect, in their complete isolation from all other actions…and in the conscientiousness with which they are carried out in every detail” (213). However, Freud does distinguish between the two, calling obsessive actions unconscious while ritual actions are usually consciously performed, even if the actor does not know why he or she is doing the action. In the Batman narrative, Freud might focus on the vicious murder of his parents that Bruce Wayne witnessed. The complexes developed from this experience, Freud might argue, have turned Wayne into an obsessive neurotic. He ritually becomes the Batman, putting on the mask, to satisfy his neurotic needs as above: he might feel guilty if he did not, he has put his wealth and normal society aside and he has dedicated his life to avenging an act he witnessed as a boy. The Batman personality is a compensation for his inability to keep his parents alive. In today’s Batman stories, as well as many other superhero narratives, this type of psychological examination of the protagonists is rampant. Many of the superheroes now have at least some elements of an anti-hero.

The origin of the Batman, as demonstrated by the masking rite which actually creates the character, has elements of four of the six categories of ritual devised by Catherine Bell (Grillo). These include the rite of passage, the commemorative rite, the rite of affliction (both in Batman’s attempt to destroy criminal behavior as well as his own attempt to heal his internal wounds) and the political ritual, as his attempt to rid the world of crime clearly expresses his world view, and possibly his desire to set himself as a vigilante, a judge of society. Clearly, the Batman origin narrative, through a mixture of words and pictures, expresses the content of ritual. The Batman character, through seventy years of narrative, has developed into a mythical being for our society. Granted, the usual genre story in the superhero comic is less mythology than violent wish fulfillment. However, the origins of these characters often contain embedded mythological resonance which has been built upon year after year, between the battles and the cliffhangers. As referred to above, the actual origin narrative of the Batman has been retold countless times, changing the myth of the character for the new generation discovering the comics. In seventy years, there have now been five generations, worldwide, that have known the origins of the Batman.

The longevity of the character can be ascribed to two general ideas. First, the comics art form is one in which artists and a writer create a story that a singular reader experiences. This solitary act is extremely conducive to allowing readers to truly engage with the narrative, allowing mythical elements in the text to interact with their own thoughts. Just as in classical myths, this interaction often creates new ideas in a person’s psyche. As already pointed out, the superhero narratives have matured over the years. The comic art form has as well. The artist is very often the writer now, creating singular works in all genres, adult narratives that feature much more than superheroes. Second, the mythic elements in the superhero narratives, including the demonstrated elements of ritual action in the Batman character’s origin, resonate with the reader. Ritual action is deeply embedded in the human, as demonstrated by worldwide commonality. The reader recognizes, at some level, the human universals portrayed by Batman’s ritualistic behavior. Recognition and resonance lead to relevance. The relevance of rituals, the very reason they are performed, is because they work (Grillo). If they do not work, they do not get performed. The ritual mask allows Batman to succeed in avenging his parents’ death because it allows him to fight crime effectively. This is a fictional presentation of ritual, but even in the end, it still meets the requirements of why ritual is performed. Henry Pernet sums up the uses of the ritual mask in a way that could almost sum up ritual: “the mask could be an identity, emblem, and object of prestige, an affirmation of social status or hierarchy, that it could express and validate political, economic and social realities” (164). The Batman’s mask is all of these things.

Works Cited

Campbell, Joseph. Myths to Live By. New York: Penguin Compass, 1972.

Eliade, Mircea. The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion. Trans. Willard R. Trask. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1959.

Freud, Sigmund. “Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices”. Readings in Ritual Studies. Ed. Ronald L. Grimes. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1996.

Grillo, Laura. “Class Lecture Notes – Ritual.” Pacifica Graduate Institute. Carpinteria, CA. 7 Jan. 2009.

Kane, Bob (a), and Finger, Bill (w).”The Batman and How He Came To Be” [abridged-Detective Comics #33, November, 1939]. Ed. Daniels, Les. Batman: The Complete History. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1999: 34-35.

Overstreet, Robert M. The Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide, 30th Edition. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2000.

Pernet, Henry. Ritual Masks: Deception and Revelations. Trans. Laura Grillo. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1992.

Schechter, Harold. The New Gods: Psyche and Symbol in Popular Art. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1980.

Van Gennep, Arnold. The Rites of Passage. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960.

All Rights DC Comics.

All rights DC Comics.

Friday, September 18, 2009

"9" - A Question of How the Soul is Made

"9" is an amazing visual feast, with innovative characters that will charm and move you.

SPOILERS AHEAD - go see the film if you haven't yet. It's much better than reading any blog.

An interesting plot point in this animated pleasure is one we have seen recently - the splitting of the soul into a number of different objects. We have the same situation in the Harry Potter films, called the Horcrux by J.K. Rowling.

The Horcrux is split into seven inanimate objects, used by Lord Voldemort to insure his survival. If even one still exists, it will have the power to re-embody You Know Who. Similarly, in "9", the scientist splits his soul into nine amazingly cool little dolls, each with a different personality. In Potter, each part is capable of reproducing the whole. In "9", though each doll is joyfully different, it seems to be the same case. When some of the brave dolls die, their souls are eventually able to leave this world, with the remaining heroes remaining alive. I was expecting some twist along the lines of each doll being unable to remain when separated, but they are not simply part of the whole. With each having different talents, I expected each to need the other.

But I believe I missed a clue, because 9 has it all really - he combines in some small way the talents of 1 through 8. And maybe by the end, each one has done the same to some degree.

Can the soul be split? If we venture along the lines of each piece being able to recreate the whole, it would seem we can never really permanently lose a piece of ourselves. Somewhere inside, that energy will still be somewhere, somehow available to be pulled up for use when needed.

But it sure feels like we do lose part of ourselves at critical times - people that take a piece of us with them when they leave; hopes and dreams that fail; even decisions we make, when they eliminate possibilities. No matter that we keep going forward - something seems gone.

But maybe soul is more malleable than it might seem at first consideration. Cinema and story is filled with the idea of the team, in which each talent is needed for the completion of the whole. It is probably best to read that narrative psychologically, with each piece making up part of each of us. We seem to have all talents inside of us, just needing the courage to allow them to come to surface.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

M. Night Shyamalan

He fascinates me. No matter what he makes - and much of it can seem nonsensical at times - he concentrates on holding it all together with all the tricks of the cinematic trade. He is a craftsman, which is a whole lot more than can be said for many filmmakers.

I am one of the few that will admit I didn't see the hook in "The Sixth Sense" coming until it was revealed in the film. When I go to see a film, on the first watch I try to NOT figure it out. I prefer to allow my self to be immersed in the screen - if the film doesn't warrant immersion, it will kick you out itself. And the cinematic craftsman, such as Night, always invites immersion. Second watches are when structure and details can get close examination.

"Unbreakable" - I still judge this as a magnificent film. The structure, in which mise-en-scene connects each scene to the next, is cinematic mimicry of the comic book, as if each scene were a panel, and each edit the gap between the panels. The style echoes the narrative about the comic book hero and his arch-villain. Perhaps his greatest film.

I have only seen "Signs", "The Village" and "Lady in the Water" once each, so I won't make grandiose comments on these like I just did for "Unbreakable". I recall liking "Signs"; being extremely disappointed in the ending of "The Village"; and liking "Lady in the Water" - I'm a big Paul Giamatti fan. I do think I should re-screen these three films. I have not seen his earlier works "Wide Awake" or "Praying With Anger".

So what's left? "The Happening" - of course. When it came out to theaters, I remember being surprised. I had heard nothing about it. This bodes ill for a film, with low publicity usually meaning the studios are trying to sneak a film by the critics, and the audiences, to get to a DVD release. It usually means advanced screenings have already doomed its chances. "The Village" and "Lady in the Water" were not as successful - economically and critically - as his earlier films. It seemed "The Happening", with no real advance word on what it was even about, was a real bomb.

Then my brother told me it was about and that it was ridiculous - plants were causing the Happening. Perhaps he even said he walked out of the film. I may have invented that, but if it was fiction, it was enough to prevent me from seeing it. As he said recently "sentient plants", to which the probable reaction is "Blecch!". I felt bad though - I liked Night's work and no matter how silly it sounded, I knew I should see it. A year or so later, I did.

It showed up on OnDemand as a free movie. I almost forgot about it. It was time to watch, though I went in expecting little. On first view, it was defintely odd. Some strange lines and odd deliveries, not to mention the whole plant angle - I enjoyed it though, feeling it may be too simple and direct, and that was that.

It stuck with me though. I like Mark Wahlberg. I like John Leguizamo. Zooey Deschanel - I didn't know, but she stuck with me also. They were not perfect in these roles, but oddly good. And something must have been right, because as I said, they stayed in my head. Then - strangely - and perhaps it is because of my yearly craving for Horror around Memorial Day and Labor Day (there's a blog for another time) - and knowing my wife would say "Yes" when I suggest we watch a Shyamalan movie she's never seen yet - I just watched it again.

And I am rather in awe that I liked it a whole lot more the second time around. The odd tone and premise somehow go down better when you know what to expect. And some of the details - the web of connection that makes for satisfaction at the cinema - stuck out more on second view.
A quick scene of a car backing up over plants became creepy. The view toward science in general, though sometimes overdone, really shone through on the second view with Wahlberg's character in the classroom. Night produced an environmental message movie with an almost Todd Solondz creepiness to it, which is also a sweet love story by the end.

Sort of a mish-mash, I guess. But I liked it. In spite of some weird dialogue - what sticks in my mind is when Wahlberg tells the crazy woman "I'm a teacher!" - as if that is going to make her not be crazy any more? Strange. But cool in some way also.

Next is M. Night Shyamalan's "The Last Airbender" - based on the pretty cool cartoon series that I wanted to watch but just never found the time. Sounds and looks weird and cool. Yes, another Night triumph.

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Image in Song

The beauty of the songwriter is the image they are able to convey. When the image fits the idea, you can call it seeing through to the other story - the one that makes sense. Peering say, beyond the veil.

No songwriter has better images - characters - stories - than Bob Dylan. And I honor him here - even though I have cut his song down to the only lyrics sung in My Chemical Romance's current version from the Watchmen soundtrack. This song saw through my world this last week - light and dark, sublime, radiant, ridiculous and melancholic. I feel the need to honor these words by having them clearly spelled out. It's very worth it to read all of Dylan's song, but here is the other version, whose energy and attitude made me laugh, wonder and survive, even while being an example of the very theory we were discussing. The line that willnot leave my head is:

The riot squad is restless/They need somewhere to go - which makes me nervous, but then -

As Lady and I look out tonight/From Desolation Row - which makes me laugh. Heartily.

I can relate every image here to something - or someone - I encountered this week. Now that I have written this, my thoughts have returned. Like it was waiting me out, to honor this crazy sprawling Dylan channeled through some crazy/funny music. Finally I can move on.

Without further ado -

Desolation Row (by Bob Dylan, as abridged by My Chemical Romance)
They're selling postcards of the hanging
They're painting the passports brown
The beauty parlor is filled with sailors
The circus is in town
Here comes the blind commissioner
They've got him in a trance
One hand is tied to the tight-rope walker
The other is in his pants
And the riot squad they're restless
They need somewhere to go
As Lady and I look out tonight
From Desolation Row
Cinderella, she seems so easy
"It takes one to know one," she smiles
And puts her hands in her back pockets
Bette Davis style
And in comes Romeo, he's moaning
"You Belong to Me I Believe"
And someone says," You're in the wrong place, my friend
You better leave"
And the only sound that's left
After the ambulances go
Is Cinderella sweeping up
On Desolation Row
Now at midnight all the agents
And the superhuman crew
Come out and round up everyone
That knows more than they do
Then they bring them to the factory
Where the heart-attack machine
Is strapped across their shoulders
And then the kerosene
Is brought down from the castles
By insurance men who go
Check to see that nobody is escaping
To Desolation Row

Right now I can't read too good
Don't send me no more letters no
Not unless you mail them
From Desolation Row

Copyright ©1965; renewed 1993 Special Rider Music

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Language of Mythology, the Fairy Tale and the Fantastic: “The Native Speech of Dream”

One of the foundations of Joseph Campbell’s mythic writing is his recognition that our times lack a tenable, global mythology. The religious myths still in use among varied human cultures are unable to provide comprehensive or credible insights for our modern world. They were formed thousands of years ago, well before the knowledge explosion that followed the discovery of the New World. Campbell rhetorically asks of these religions, if “…anyone has a right to pretend to a knowledge of eternal laws and of a general moral order for the good of all mankind” (The Mythic Dimension 224-225). His answer, that no religion does have this right, is the basis of much of his later work. That knowledge is what mythology is, and it comes from within each individual. He writes, “For it is simply a fact – as I believe we have all now got to concede – that mythologies and their deities are productions and projections of the psyche. What gods are there, what gods have there ever been, that were not from man’s imagination?” (Campbell, Myths to Live By 253). The enticement in his work, as well as the problem, is in discovering what a relevant mythology for our times might look like and where it will come from.

Campbell focuses on the artist. One such artist is the fantasy genre fiction writer. The literature of modern fantasy has driven me into a deeper fascination with mythology and a desire to explore the connection between the two. However, a formulation of the actual relationship between fantasy and myth has been elusive. There seems to be a general dismissal of modern fantasy, claiming the work as a whole is not laden with enough internal meaning to actually qualify as mythic. A similar prejudice has kept fantasy as a genre from being acknowledged as literature, in the artistic sense. Fantasy writers are often seen as “hacks”. So what is the relationship between mythology and fantasy narrative? Campbell’s work has provided a thread to hold onto for further exploration. In pursuit, perhaps the thread will become a rope. In his discussion of the fairy tale, or the “tale of wonder” (Campbell, Flight of the Wild Gander 24), the focus is on the language of mythology as a language of symbols. This symbolic language is drawn from the psyche, our internal reaches that Jung terms the unconscious. Campbell writes, “…myth is a picture language…this language is the native speech of dream…it has been studied, clarified and enriched by the poets, prophets, and visionaries of untold millenniums” (Flight 22). This symbol language arises from our unconscious and is made available to us in our dreams. Myth can be made when these symbols are used in the conscious creation of a story. Modern society seemingly has taken direct relevance out of ancient myths. However, we are still able to gain insight from those myths because what live on, utterly relevant to us today, are the archetypal symbols and the language used to weave those symbols into a tale. Culled from our collective unconscious, the symbols are the building blocks of myth and are still recognizable to our modern, conscious selves.

These symbols also are used in fantasy fiction, one mode of the modern tale of wonder. “Myths… break up to let their pregnant motifs scatter and settle into the materials of popular tale” (Campbell, Flight 22-23). To begin an extrapolation forward from Campbell, the dream symbols of our unconscious are also deeply embedded in the mythologies of past cultures. As well, this language of symbols is found in the folk tales that have spread internationally. The stories are changed and tweaked depending on who is doing the telling, but the symbols at the cores remain the same. This symbolic language of the unconscious is still in use today, being called up, reflected upon, worked with and written down by the writers of today’s fantasy literature.

Since this symbolic language does remain in use around the world, from the tales of old religions to the fictions of modern fantasy writers, there may already be a modern, global mythology, though perhaps in a formative stage. The motifs and symbols of the tale of wonder, taken out of the collective unconscious, are the basal layer of our ancient and modern myths. “The ‘monstrous, irrational and unnatural’ motifs of folk tale and myth are derived from the reservoirs of dream and vision. On the dream level such images represent the total state of the individual dreaming psyche. But clarified of personal distortions and propounded by poets, prophets, and visionaries, they become symbolic of the spiritual norm for Man the Microcosm” (Campbell, Flight 23). Because these images from the collective unconscious are not only contained within us all, but also consciously passed down through historic tales and myths, we are all powerfully familiar with the elements of this symbolic language. In today’s world, myth, along with fantasy and folk tale, may be dismissed as childish. However, speaking of children, Campbell writes, “For it is a curious characteristic of our unformed species that we live and model our lives through acts of make-believe” (Campbell, Myths 55). These symbols, the basis of children’s make-believe and a way in which they learn, are actually the same building blocks adults can use to forge collective notions of who we, as individuals of a global Diaspora, are. As Campbell writes, “And so we find that in those masterworks of the modern day which are of a visionary rather than of a descriptive order the forms long known from the nursery tale reappear, but now in adult maturity” (Campbell, Flight 25). The question may be what will be considered as “masterworks of the modern day”?

In further writing about the tale of wonder, Campbell says “Its world of magic is symptomatic of fevers deeply burning in the psyche” (Campbell, Flight 24). In our post-modern era, the writers of fantasy literature are often consciously aware of the connections between those fevers and the stories they are relating to readers. The writer forges new tales using that symbolic language, the native speech of dream. They take the symbols being sent forth from their own unconscious and apply their craft by forging connections between their personally derived images and the images from tales already told. One well-known author that can be used as an introductory example is J.R.R. Tolkien, whose works The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are so well known. One of Tolkien’s aims in writing these works was to create a specific mythology for England because he felt there was none existent. However, in writing in the fantasy genre, it seems he was well aware of the native speech of dreams, even if he used different words to describe it. “An essential power of Faërie is thus the power of making immediately effective by the will the visions of ‘fantasy’. Not all are beautiful or even wholesome, not at any rate the fantasies of fallen Man” (Tolkien 109). In this quote from his influential essay “On Fairy Stories”, Tolkien is acknowledging the combination of the “visions”, what we are calling the symbols of dream speech, and the “will”, or the author’s own consciousness being used to craft the tale. Though his work may not exactly be a mythology for England in the historic sense, it does seem that he created a mythic work that resonates with a large population worldwide. As one Tolkien commentator analyzes, “Myths develop a link with the past, a continuity that helps people weather the present and look forward to the future. In an era of unprecedented change, the links to the past are stretched to the breaking point, and a people without roots are likely to become, analogously, a people without branches or flowers” (Grotta, 85). This popular resonance stems from the author’s use of the native speech of dream, which contains the symbols which make up the content of mythology. They connect us not only to historical myths, but also to the possibilities of future stories, myths and actual changes in our lives.

It seems a difficult task to imagine a mythology being invented in the modern world that will serve the needs of the disparate, global cultures. Religion has been one of the organizing myths of our modern societies. However, now that religion is so culturally defining and dividing, spiritual insight has become peripheral to its organizational power. The foundational core of any religion has always been a dreamer, looking directly inside him- or herself to the unconscious, and relating what they find there to others. However, the political organizations of religions allow their leaders to manipulate and focus the shape of their official teachings. The actions and words of various churches have moved far afield from the original insights that were the basis for religions. As Campbell says, “But wherever systematizing theologians have appeared and gained the day…Mythology is misread then as direct history or science, symbol becomes fact, metaphor dogma, and the quarrels of the sects arise, each mistaking its own symbolic signs for the ultimate reality” (Flight 53). The native speech of dream becomes used for something unintended, namely, a dogmatic set of organizational ideas whose major aim seems to be the defining of a united group. The individual symbols that are the basis of that speech, the actual ideas of those formational dreamers of the past, are misunderstood and often completely ignored.

At a time when myth is overshadowed by religion, the writers of fantasy fiction are one subset of artists interacting with the symbols of dream language. In a manner similar to those of dreamers past, on whose individual inspirations much of our historic myth follows from, they present stories in the native speech of dream. Symbolic language is used to help the reader understand something about themselves and their place in the universe. Tolkien wrote of these tales of wonder, “Not all are beautiful or even wholesome” (109), but as Campbell says of any new mythology, it must be “addressed, that is to say, not to the flattery of ‘peoples,’ but to the waking of individuals in the knowledge of themselves” (Myths 266). The solitary work writers undertake to produce fiction is a mesh. It combines a historic trail of myth and tale with personal symbolic language articulated from out of their own unconscious. This work is done alone, just as the work of any dreamer is done alone. As written work, their art is then experienced alone, when the symbolic language of the writer is read by a solitary reader. Symbols, the native speech of dreams, transfer from the writer to a reader, who then allows the symbols to interact with the internal forms of his or her own native speech of dreams. When this speech is used to “constellate a mesocosm – a mediating, middle cosmos, through which the microcosm of the individual is brought into relation to the macrocosm of the universe” (Campbell, Flight 123), there is the creation of a fertile ground on which mythology grows.

Works Cited

Campbell, Joseph. Flight of the Wild Gander: Explorations in the Mythological Dimension. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2002.

Campbell, Joseph. Myths to Live By. New York: Penguin Compass, 1972.

Campbell, Joseph. The Mythic Dimension: Selected Essays 1959-1987. Antony Van Couvering. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2007.

Grotta, Daniel. The Biography of J.R.R. Tolkien: Architect of Middle Earth. Running Press: Philadelphia, 1992.

Tolkien, J.R.R. “On Fairy Stories.” A Tolkien Miscellany. New York: SFBC Science Fiction, 2002.

The Unicorn: Giving to Redeem the Waste Land

European sacred tradition produces narratives of Arthurian courts blending Christian and pagan mythology. By superimposing new interpretations onto older symbols, Christians had enormous success converting Europe to their monotheistic system. By reconfiguring familiar remnants, Christianity became a prime example of what mythology is and does. When new ideas blend into symbols of older traditions, a new, rich third is created. In the beginning of the twenty first century, Arthurian myth is still with us. Though we can discover both Christian and pre-Christian meanings in its symbols, modern comprehension reveals our own gap: what do these symbols mean to us? Joseph Campbell wrote about our modern lack of recognizing metaphor in religious understanding. He said, “For it is simply a fact – as I believe we have all now got to concede – that mythologies and their deities are productions and projections of the psyche. What gods are there, what gods have there ever been, that were not from man’s imagination?” (Myths 253). Literalism has altered symbols man produced as metaphors. The Unicorn is one symbol from man’s imagination often used within the Arthurian tradition. Though cited as a real beast by Cosmas Indicopleustes around the year 550 (Freeman 36), the unicorn’s changing metaphorical symbolism can be readily tracked. Using the exquisitely woven and preserved Unicorn Tapestries, pre-Christian, as well as religious, symbolic meanings of the unicorn can be illuminated. In the spirit of Campbell, however, as Christian literalism leaves us disenchanted in a modern Wasteland, are there unicorn metaphors that can make old myth relevant to us in appropriately new ways? The seminal fantasy author Peter S. Beagle used the unicorn as the symbolic center of his classic novel, The Last Unicorn. He also recently published a seven poem cycle, one poem based directly on each of the Unicorn Tapestries. Beagle’s work creates new metaphorical meaning for the mythical unicorn whose relevance waned in an onslaught of literalism.

The Tapestries, dating from the Middle Ages, depict a unicorn hunt in seven separate works. There is debate over exactly who crafted them, and for whom they were actually created. However, symbolic interpretations of the unicorn, the hunt in general, and the human and natural elements beautifully sewn into the works are generally established. In his detailed study of almost every element to be found on each tapestry, John Williamson sums up this interpretation as, “the classical gods gradually evolved from their original aspect to become metaphors of Christian ideas” (27). The Unicorn Tapestries contain symbols evoking pre-Christian vegetation myth. This predominant narrative is the seasonal variation of the agricultural year, with its myths of the Oak King and the Holly King (Williamson). The same symbols can also be interpreted as metaphors for the Christian figures of Jesus Christ and Mary. This narrative as depicted has various interpretations, but Williamson makes a detailed case for the tapestries depicting the birth and ultimate crucifixion of Christ, as well as a depiction of the Incarnation. Adolfo Cavallo suggests the symbolized narrative actually evokes Adam and Eve as their original sin becomes redeemed by the death of Christ (51). This interpretation might account for the woven “A & E” found sewn into the works. However, for this analysis, the focus on Christ being depicted as the unicorn is the most important detail.

The first of the Tapestries depicts “The Start of the Hunt”. Williamson describes the underlying pagan theme of this scene as “the symbolic awakening of the earth in early spring” (96), while also metaphorically depicting the birth of Christ. Seasonal rebirth was the foundation of human agricultural life. Rebirth is also the main message of Christ. There is debate today over whether the message refers to a literal rebirth after death, or if Christ was calling his followers to awaken to their inner lives in a new relationship. There can be no debate Christianity partly developed as a religious narrative superimposed on the seasonal myths that came before it. The first tapestry begins a narrative of the Oak King, who started his reign at the Winter Solstice, the same season of the birth of Christ on Christmas Day.

The second tapestry depicts “The Unicorn at the Fountain”. As Williamson details, the plants shown in this work depict “spring – the actual blossoming of vegetation” as well as underlying “images which suggest the return to earth of vegetation deities like Christ” (98). The new Oak King is taking control of his reign and the earth is abundant, just as Christ’s life symbolizes the abundance of good will humanity can achieve by acting on his words. The unicorn depicted purifies the poisoned water of a fountain, from which animals will now be able to drink safely. In addition, according to Williamson, there are symbols pointing to Easter and the month of March, to the “events that surround the Crucifixion” (120). Just as the Oak King must be killed yearly for vegetation to renew itself, so Christ is killed for his followers to be reborn after their death.

The third tapestry is “The Unicorn Crossing the Stream”. As springtime changes to summer, the year steadily approaches the Summer Solstice, after which days again begin to grow shorter. Williamson focuses on the crossing of the stream as a “homeopathic rite that ensures rain for the season” (140) of summer. There is anticipation in this tapestry, as the hunters drive the unicorn over water. However, Williamson is less clear about symbolic relevance to Christ here, saying simply this tapestry “identifies with the events centered upon resurrection” (122). Just as there is anticipation for the coming of necessary rains, I would offer a possibility of the crossing of the stream depicting a Fluvial Necrotype (Smith). The ordeal of the crucifixion is a figurative descent into the Underworld, which is followed in some Christian traditions by an actual three day visit by Christ to the Underworld of Hell. The unicorn, as Christ, crosses the stream, symbolizing his acceptance of fate and the descent that will go with it.

The fourth tapestry, “The Unicorn Defends Himself”, depicts vegetation associated with the arrival of Midsummer, “a time when the marriage of the Oak King with the representation of the earth mother traditionally took place” (Williamson 141). On the Summer Solstice, when the Oak King is at his peak, it is a short-lived peak. A decline toward winter begins the next day. Williamson suggests “the holly tree dominates the floral iconography for the first time” (145) as a clear indication of the continued seasonal depiction. The unicorn begins to take on the lunar aspect of the Holly King, whose strength grows even as the solar Oak King’s power wanes. In the Christian interpretation, Christ has now accepted his role by descending into an underworld. He knows he is the sacrifice that will save humanity, just as the Oak King accepts his own death as the necessity for agriculture’s rebirth. This scene also parallels the story of Jesus’ betrayal in the garden. Just as Jesus’ disciples featured in events leading to his death instead of trying to help him avoid it, no hunter is actually piercing the unicorn; they are just driving him on to his eventual fate. That fate is sealed in the next tapestry.

The fifth, “The Unicorn is Tamed by the Maiden”, remains with us in a fragmented state. Only two strips exist and at least two additional strips are missing. However, there is enough material still present to ensure this pivotal work provides relevant information. Williamson suggests the missing lady who tames the unicorn “is identified with love, death, and rebirth – aspects of both the apple tree and, ultimately, the Triple Goddess” (162). The vegetation in this work depicts mid-August, a time when the Holly King was powerless as the unicorn who has given in to the lady. Showing the complexity of these symbols, the lady with the unicorn is also suggested as a symbol of the Oak King uniting with the earth mother, when, “after a blissful union, he is led away and is killed” (Williamson 174). The Christian interpretation of the unicorn’s submission has various meanings. One is the final recognition by Christ of his “voluntary sacrifice and his acceptance of betrayal” (Williamson 162). However, this scene also suggests a symbolic reading of the Incarnation. Christ willfully enters into Mary in order to be born as man so he may eventually die to save humanity (Cavallo 47). The end result, of course, is the same.

The sixth tapestry, “The Unicorn is Killed and Brought to the Castle”, depicts the actual spearing of the unicorn and its body subsequently being brought to the royal couple who presumably ordered the hunt. Now that we actually have the death of the unicorn, the season depicted is winter. The Holly King has died, which foretells the coming rebirth of the Oak King. Williamson places this tapestry in the “season of the winter solstice, the end of the agricultural year, and the death of the lunar unicorn” (198). The Christian symbolism is of the actual Crucifixion, wherein Christ dies, shown by the actual spearing of the unicorn. Williamson suggests the royal court, in front of which the unicorn is paraded, depicts the descent of Christ into the underworld before he is resurrected (176). Williamson adds the intriguing interpretative possibility of the royal couple symbolizing Persephone and Hades, before which all the dead, apparently even Christ, must be brought (184 – 185).

The seventh and final tapestry depicts “The Unicorn in Captivity”, in which a reborn and prancing unicorn is contained within an enclosure, under a dripping pomegranate tree. The pomegranate symbolism adds credibility to the possibility the royal couple were Persephone and Hades, since pomegranate was the fruit binding Persephone to the Underworld. Williamson suggests this final work is not part of the hunt, “but rather the apotheosis of the hunt, in which the resurrected unicorn symbolizes the rebirth of Christian and pre-Christian vegetation gods” (199). Thus, the varied plants sewn into this seventh tapestry “promote fertility and encourage copulation” (226). The vegetation gods have been reborn in the yearly cycle after winter’s barren months, and Jesus Christ has risen out of the Underworld to a new life. Both events ensure humanity’s survival.

An additional interpretation of the seventh tapestry is suggested by Williamson, giving possible credence to Cavallo’s suggestion that Adam and Eve (A&E) are woven in throughout the hunt. The pomegranate tree symbolizes the feminine and the unicorn symbolizes the masculine. The enclosure that contains them both may be the New Garden of Eden. Humanity, reborn through Christ’s sacrifice, is now free to live without sin once again (Williamson 224-226). There is an underlying suggestion of the identification of the key to life, which transcends any descent to an underworld or being caught in any wasteland. “To provide fruitfulness within the holy precinct, the union of the sexes was essential” (226). Birth and rebirth are the keys to life, but they only occur through the presence of both the feminine and the masculine. Though Adam and Eve may have begun a vicious cycle, they also represent the only possible way to escape what they began.

What do these death and rebirth symbols of pre-Christian vegetation gods and Jesus Christ have to say to us today? As Campbell suggested, Christianity is generally understood on a literal basis today. Earlier mythology, telling stories of the agricultural gods, is generally accepted only as stories for entertainment. With both sets of narratives, there are those who will take time to unravel historical and psychological significance in the myths, but they are not the general public. Do the Unicorn Tapestries, any unicorn, or any myth retain relevance in the modern world?

Cavallo adds an interesting idea, germane to the question of the modern interpretation of such works. He suggests the first, fifth and seventh tapestries may not belong in the sequence of the other four (29 – 75), which we have seen Williamson string together in a unified narrative. Cavallo believes they were probably done by the same weavers, for the same clients, but not for a linear set. This question remains for art historians, as do those of the weaver’s identity and the tapestry’s original owners. However, this relatively recent idea comes after the researched and detailed narrative Williamson created to include all seven tapestries. If Cavallo is correct, then Williamson has already created a new narrative for the modern world. However, it is suffused with history, still based on symbols and myths alive when the works were created. Are there further new interpretations of these works?

Taking another cue from Joseph Campbell, we must look to artists for new paths. The first that must be briefly considered is T.S. Eliot and his poem “The Waste Land”. Eliot wrote and defined the Waste Land, a barren earth of failed relationships, in the year 1922. World War I began the devastation of modern sensibilities. Eliot used Arthurian source ideas to write of a world in need of renewal, whether from war or the personal brutalities we inflict on each other. His answer for escaping the Waste Land was “’Datta, dayadhvam, damyata’ (Give, sympathize, control)’” (53). If this is the way to renew the Waste Land, then taking, cynicism and chaos must be what creates the Waste Land. Arthurian myth postulates a return of the King to renew the world. Are there modern interpretations of the narrative of the Unicorn Tapestries, wherein we may find renewal for the Waste Land we are living in? Can mythic symbols which historically evoked the Oak King, the Holly King and Jesus Christ find their own rebirth for us today?

The second artist to consider is Peter S. Beagle, a seminal fantasy literature author whose career became serious with his novel, The Last Unicorn. A major coincidence recently took place when a brief classroom discussion regarding the Unicorn Tapestries was ignited the following morning by the discovery of a poem cycle by Beagle titled “The Unicorn Tapestries” (185-192). He chose to write from the point of view of a boy in tapestry six, depicted looking at his dog, unable to look at the dead unicorn slung over the horse’s back. The language of Beagle’s poetry speaks of the unicorn as a symbol of something within, yet beyond, the real world, which the boy senses by himself:

He was not white as ivory,
or snow, or milk, as men declare,
but white as moonlight on the sea –
oh, white as daisies! white as air! (186)

The boy’s father is the nobleman who has called for the unicorn hunt, and the respect he asks to be due the unicorn as a beast of natural wonder is shown in this verse:

He said, “We may not give him chase
till he is roused and starts to run.
Stand you a moment in his grace
and ask his pardon, every one.”

Then I was glad to be his son. (187)

The unicorn is defined by his “grace” by the father, but the son has already defined him by natural attributes of a wonderful existence, “white as air!” The father’s hunt continues anyway, but fails because there is only one way to capture a unicorn. The boy describes the maiden and the unicorn as he approaches toward her. She “smiled like a sleeping snake” (190), but the unicorn still goes to her, because he is a being who gives: “Perhaps he did know, / and did not care” (189). He then describes the actual killing of the unicorn after he has given himself up: “the wholeness broken by the grunting men, / the beauty spilling, / his eyes brilliant with hurt” (190). Here is the Waste Land defined: taking a life, a cynical outlook even as beauty spills and the chaos of a slaughtering scene. The boy can only look thankfully at his dog. Upon seeing the unicorn reborn, the boy describes his feelings:

All in the morning, feeling his breath
play in my hair as he stamped and blew,
just for a moment I knew what he knew,
shining and shining and shining –
that nothing could hold him, not even death;
that no collars, no chains, no fences, as strong as they seem,
can hold a dream. (192)

Here we have the unicorn as a symbol of a dream, perhaps a literal Jungian nighttime dream, but definitely a goal and hope of a person awake and purposeful. Jung’s individuation process encompasses both, a striving to shine and unwillingness to be stopped before achieving what a person needs. The chaos of restraints, death and the greed of others, instead of being allowed to give of your gifts freely, are aspects of today’s Waste Land. The unicorn gives all he can willingly, his life to the lady, in order to shine and inspire the boy in the light of rebirth.

Beagle has used the unicorn as a symbol of rebirth, just as the Unicorn Tapestries previously were interpreted depicting seasonal rebirth of the yearly cycle and rebirth of Jesus Christ in order to save the world. In modern global society, however, the individual rebirth of a child, awakening to the beauty of giving over taking, seems a more relevant interpretation. Daily agricultural labor is no longer seen by a majority of Americans, many of whom believe food comes from the supermarket. Vegetation gods hold little resonance for us. Jesus Christ has become a historical figure, proving most powerful for those who take his metaphorical words literally. The fact that we have lost much of our traditionally rich symbolism signifies not a will to lose it, but simply that we have lost touch with metaphor. Eliot used the Arthurian tradition to describe the modern world, perfectly describing the Waste Land, but coded his solution in the myths of an even older Hindu tradition. Beagle’s simplicity and relevance reworks the unicorn as a symbol. A beast of wonder, the unicorn evokes the environmental Waste Land we have created in our world, evidenced by rapidly diminishing numbers of wild animal species. There is an advancement of the mythical process here, as this becomes a symbol we relate to. We can then understand the unicorn gives freely. He doesn’t take. This was the original message of Jesus Christ, but it has become lost in the Waste Land of those who use him to take what they say is theirs. They have lost the understanding of the need to give – and give freely – in order to have rebirth.

Depth Psychology adds to this interpretation, but too often in the process of individuating, we take what is “ours”. Even when reclaiming what is within us, the common metaphor is to take from our unconscious what we need to be whole. If it is for what we perceive to be our own good, we often forget the unconscious is actually supposed to give us what we need. A careless or blind focus on our self may lead to appropriating cultural and religious solutions from other traditions. However, simply taking historical and psychological narratives of others will not completely enable us to escape our own modern Waste Land.

Joseph Campbell writes, “…myth is a picture language…this language is the native speech of dream…it has been studied, clarified and enriched by the poets, prophets, and visionaries of untold millenniums” (Flight 22). In fantasy literature, written by poets in this native speech of dream, old symbols are reworked to speak to the modern world. By understanding the wonder of the fantastic, we are able to recognize the shine within ourselves, so different from ordinary experience. Hopefully, we understand that when reclaiming our enchantment, we need to give the same to the world. Our own rebirth should be a rebirth of giving, a lesson the unicorn knows only too well.

Works Cited

Beagle, Peter S. We Never Talk About My Brother. San Francisco: Tachyon Publications, 2009.

Campbell, Joseph. Flight of the Wild Gander: Explorations in the Mythological Dimension. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2002.

Campbell, Joseph. Myths to Live By. New York: Penguin Compass, 1972.

Cavallo, Adolfo Salvatore. The Unicorn Tapestries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art and Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1998.

Eliot, T.S. The Waste Land and Other Poems. San Diego: Harvest/HBJ, 1962.

Freeman, Margaret B. The Unicorn Tapestries. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1976.

Smith, Dr. Evans-Lansing. “Class Lecture Notes – European Sacred Traditions.” Pacifica Graduate Institute. Carpinteria, CA. 18 May 2009.

Williamson, John. The Oak King, The Holly King, and the Unicorn. New York: Harper & Row, 1986.

Harry Potter & The Half Blood Prince

I have avoided writing about Harry Potter. So much is written already by so many others. I could not resist this latest installment though.

Cinematically, the whole series has been impressive. The frame is always used beautifully, and in "Half Blood Prince" is extremely effective. This is the art of cinema. When done well, a film is clean, beautiful and evocative. The film student will probably hufflepuff the whole idea, but I believe the images from the Potter movies to be some of the finest being shot in films today. As an example, the scenes with the bird cage and Draco Malfoy are simple, yet evocative. Draco is caged. An obvious metaphor, but the beauty of the shots really makes you think about the whole situation. He is torn amongst childhood, his being chosen by Voldemort and trying to live up to his family's sinister past. He is in the cage. But the cage can quickly become empty. And he knows it, since he is the one that removes the bird. How far can he go before he makes himself disappear? Just one example from a series that abounds in beautiful shots. The mise-en-scene is not taken for granted, unlike so many other films.

The attention given to rich detail is what modern big-budget fantasy excels at. There is an exhibition of Potter film props at Chicago's Museum of Science & Industry in which the detail on every item - from costume to intricate wand details - is plainly evident. If you're a Potter fan, I hope you get to see this show.

Thematically, "Half Blood Prince" hits a very interesting note and seamlessly binds generations.

A major focus is on the memory of the elderly Horace Slughorn. A good portion of the film focuses on Slughorn telling stories from his past. The frames in these films are awash in sepia tones, the photographic color of nostalgia and age. Slughorn struggles with his reputation. He believes how he is perceived is all that remains for himin his old age.

Draco struggles with growing older and making choices. Harry struggles with the same. Dumbledore struggles to assist both of them. And Harry must convince the older Slughorn to also make the right choice, but somehow not berate him for any past indiscretions. Slughorn must understand that his reputation is not in trouble, and only the yonger Potter can help him with this. Slughorn must admit what he has done, becoming more a hero than the fool he thought he was. Being true to others allows you to be true to yourself, no matter your age. It's a nice scene when Harry holds Slughorn's hand to assist him in giving up his memory. Too often the young and old are played off each other, instead of assisting each other with their own special skills. The Potter films could be analyzed just for what they say about respect between the ages. Even here, in which Potter and friends can be slightly snarky teenagers - joking about Dumbledore's old age - Potter and friends have always impressed me as being respectful to their elders who warrant respect because they give it. They are also shown respecting each other and themselves.

Another take on this theme is how age must be responsible for at least trying to help youth, giving guidance in decision making. Though Dumbledore being a father to Harry is obvious, there are many more young wizards and witches at Hogwarts. Dumbledore tries to save Malfoy. Snape, of course, actually does.

Knowing the seventh book makes Snape a wonder to behold in this film. There is no question for me that the literary Snape is one of the great adult characters of all time. The cinematic Snape is almost equal. Alan Rickman evokes so much with so little that it is easy to overlook his work. The interiority of the literary character is not easy to bring to film. When Snape reveals he is the Half Blood Prince - all is really revealed. But nothing is obvious. And aren't we all Half Blood in the end? The struggle of light and dark is played out constantly in us. Appearances can always be deceiving.

My last comments are on a minor part of the film, but a true surprise for me. I recently completed a paper on the mythological themes from the Unicorn Tapestries, the medieval tapestries hanging in the Cloisters in NYC. The tapestries were featured twice in "Half Blood Prince" and used the themes of the unicorn hunt to perfection. It was rather odd how they combined the tapestries, but no matter. The focus was on the seventh, in which the unicorn is captured in an enclosure, under a pomegranate tree.

We see this the first time as Draco stands in front of it. The second time has Harry and Ginny in front of the tapestry. There are various interpretations of the symbolism in the tapestries, both old agricultural myths of the Holly King and Oak King, as well as Christian re-interpretations.

What came to mind with Draco was the maiden who lures the unicorn to her, only to lull it into serenity and then be killed. At the same time, the unicorn goes willingly, giving itself up so that it can bring about rebirth. Draco ponders it for a shot - perhaps never understanding that Dumbledore's death is the sacrifice that is needed. However, he has a choice. As Dumbledore says in earlier film - between what is right, and what is easy. Because his guidance is poor, Draco can only proceed with the plot to lure in the old wizard.

When Ginny and Harry stand before the tapestry, the symbolism of the unity of man and woman comes forward. The unicorn stands enclosed under a pomegranate tree, symbolizing that rebirth and ultimate redemption by giving of itself. Ginny of course is aiding Harry in ridding himself of harmful magic, even while she is declaring her love for him in the most obvious way yet. It's a quick scene, but very beautiful.

As well, the passing of Dumbledore to come can be compared to the passing of the Holly King, as it is time for a new king to take over. Quick thoughts only, but it is great to see such works being used in this series.

I will post my unicorn paper to give a more detailed analysis.